We’ve got this thing where anyone can submit an essay for consideration for a freebie review here on the blahg and look! Someone submitted one! And they did so before it was too late for us to look at it before deadlines!
This is for Kellogg essay 2 whose question is:
Kellogg’s purpose is to educate, equip & inspire brave leaders who create lasting value. Tell us about a time you have demonstrated leadership and created lasting value. What challenges did you face, and what did you learn?
Hoo-boy not an easy one! Though Kellogg essay 1 about “growth” might be even harder.
Here’s how this one opens up:
“Captain [BSer], the water is over the road, should we keep going?” Nearing midnight, the rain still pouring down, the decision was mine. My small team had been driving for six hours, searching for a passable route into Houston as Hurricane Harvey was dumping rain and causing the worst flooding since Hurricane Katrina. In that team, not only did we have key planners to assist with rescue efforts, but also an essential communications system the Texas National Guard needed to communicate with forces both in Houston and back to their headquarters in Austin.
Okay, we’re going to take this opportunity to issue a Public Service Announcement.
There are two kinds of quotes that people open essays with:
1. Quotes from famous people, 99% of the time being from Gandhi.
(Used to be 50/50 Gandhi/Steve Jobs but that’s shifted lately; maybe after Jobs has been dead for longer his quotes will come back in style.)
For essays that start like this: DELETE THE QUOTE. Don’t argue with us. Just do it.
Why? Well, we actually explain this on the blahg in multiple places. Like in Do not ever open an essay with a quote just don’t. And in this warning about stylistic don’t-dos (spare us the Gandhi).
Or, sometimes essays are like this one and open with:
2. Quotes from someone involved in the situation you’re about to describe.
That’s the case here, and we’re not going to be so shrill about insisting you don’t do this, but we will ask you: What are you trying to accomplish by starting this way?
People write like this because they think it’ll create suspense. They’ve heard that you’re supposed to start a story in medias res or “in the middle of the action” which if you’re writing Star Wars or Top Gun is exactly the right advice to follow.
But guess what? You’re not writing Top Gun. You’re writing an essay.
Different rules for different writing.
And in probably 99% if not 100% of the essays that we see that open with this technique, the story does not actually need the quote.
But that’s not the reason we’re doing a PSA on it.
We’re doing a PSA on it because starting with a quote is TOTALLY EFFING CONFUSING.
By definition, a quote is in the middle of something and in the case of an essay which is supposed to be answering a specific question that the adcom has asked you you should be either a) ANSWERING THAT QUESTION or b) at least starting the story that answers it AT THE BEGINNING OF THE STORY.
To do anything other than a) or b) is to risk confusing your reader. Or at least, making it harder on them than it has to be.
You do not want your reader confused.
Especially not on the very first line!
Since we’re dragging this poor dog all the way through the mud today, let’s finish it up. Because obviously we’re dragging it for a reason.
How could we be objecting so strenuously to this innocuous quote in this first paragraph?
After all, the whole paragraph is actually very well written. The English is clean. The writing is clear. The first sentence does not make any sense on its own, but if you keep reading, the situation is explained and everything falls into place fairly quickly.
And…. we will tell you that this is probably one of the better implementations of this start-with-a-quote device that we’ve ever seen. It’s actually not all that bad. The quote at the beginning makes no sense at all when you first read it, but keep reading, and within a few sentences the meaning clicks into place. It doesn’t leave you drowning in high waters (pun intended!).
But we’re taking this BSer’s example as an opportunity to warn all the rest of you to please do not do this. It’s coming up a lot this season and every time, we try to explain how it’s not a great technique to be using — but now we can just share this post with future BSers instead!
But how about this instead?
It was [month year]. My small team from the [National Guard or whatever] had been driving for six hours, searching for a passable route into Houston as Hurricane Harvey was dumping rain and causing the worst flooding since Hurricane Katrina. In that team, not only did we have key planners to assist with rescue efforts, but also an essential communications system the Texas National Guard needed to communicate with forces both in Houston and back to their headquarters in Austin.
“Captain [BSer], the water is over the road, should we keep going?” Nearing midnight, the rain still pouring down, the decision was mine.
(underlined is what EssaySnark added to the BSer’s original text to show how to properly set up a story)
Really what the issue is with this opening isn’t the quote; it’s that it’s doing what we call timewarping. Timewarping is never good. Talk about confusing your reader!! Writing achievement essays — which this one absolutely is — needs to be done carefully.
And that’s why rearranging the quote fixes the issue: The quote actually in this case is meaningful, since it’s capturing the leadership question that this BSer was facing — and since the essay is literally asking you to discuss a time you demonstrated leadership, then the quote is the proper setup to that story. But we need a setup to the quote, in order to know what’s going on in the scene. So a simple juggling of sentences (and adding a few more tidbits to get the scene established) will fix all of these obstacles that the reader would otherwise be facing.
For other essays written in response to other questions, though, it’s often not necessary to keep the quote at all. You’ll need to evaluate for yourself whether or not the quote you’re using it truly additive — or is it just a device. No gimmicks in essays, pretty please with whipped cream and a cherry!
So once again, we managed to not even really do a critique of more than the very first paragraph and we managed to write 1,000 words. What we’ll offer to the Sender-Inner-BSer is that we only did a cursory read through the whole draft, and typically we suggest covering stories in this essay especially that required significant time and effort to pull off — that is, that took place over a longer stretch of time, where the work to complete them is one way to convey importance and value. But, in this case, a really fast skim through this essay says that it seems to work! Mostly because of paragraph 4, which feels somewhat unfinished (not fully proven-out), but which has some seeds that can potentially make the whole thing workable. What we’re going to push back on though is the “lasting value” aspect. Are you sure that this specific “what do we do in this situation with the flooding” anecdote, which yes answers the first part of the question, is also serving to answer the second? We’re not convinced that that story is big enough to prove out the “lasting value” aspect to what Kellogg has asked. So that’s something for you to go away and think about before committing to this topic and execution.
Hopefully that input is useful. We didn’t want to get to the end of a 1,400-word post and completely cheat this very brave Brave Supplicant who submitted something out of at least a little directional input!
If you want to submit an essay of your own for consideration for such treatment, there may still be time for that before Round 1 arrives! And there’s definitely time to go through our full Essay Decimator review, which is much much more detailed and we don’t get all hung up on the very first sentence.
Also, both Star Wars and Top Gun opened with text on the screen explaining stuff. So even those movies start at the beginning!
And you have to admit, “Captain BSer” has a certain special ring to it, doesn’t it?
You may also be interested in:
- essay critique: Kellogg “demonstrated leadership and created lasting value” (November 2017)
- Our entire Kellogg essay questions page
- And oh yeah that Kellogg MBA application guide page